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Howard County Teen Rallies Schools to Use Biodegradable Food Trays

A Long Reach High student lobbied the school system for years to find a more environmentally-friendly option for school lunch trays.

Rhea Malik testifies in front of the Board of Education in May of 2012. Via BOE meeting video.
Rhea Malik testifies in front of the Board of Education in May of 2012. Via BOE meeting video.
Howard County public schools will swap out the foam trays used in cafeterias for biodegradable trays in the upcoming school year, on the heels of a successful campaign from a Howard County high school student.

Rhea Malik, 17, lobbied the school system for two and a half years to make the switch to more environmentally-friendly trays, after learning that the millions of polystyrene trays used annually in school cafeterias ended up in the landfill, where they don't biodegrade.

She met with school administrators, testified in front of the board of education and enlisted the help of Healthy Howard, a local charity.

The problem she faced was that under federal law school systems were required to "Buy American" products, especially in food service.

But this summer, the school system found a plant in Maine that manufactures biodegradable trays, according to Rebecca Amani-Dove, the school system's spokesperson. The trays cost $150,000 more than the polystyrene ones used previously, according to Amani-Dove.

"When the product became available domestically," wrote Amani-Dove, in an email, "we were happy to provide it for student lunches."

Other school systems such as in New York City, Losa Angeles and Portland, ME already have made the switch to biodegradable lunch trays in their schools. Cities across the country are also banning styrofoam cups and takeout containers due to problems with litter, such as in Brookline, MA, Glen Cove, NY and over 70 jurisdictions in California, according to USA Today.

Two weeks ago, Malik found out the school system decided to make the change to biodegradable trays.

"I was incredibly excited," said Malik, when she found out about the decision. As for her role, she said, "I'd like to think I just brought the facts to the table."

Malik said during the process she learned about how other school systems made the change, how to approach issues and that local leaders will listen to students.

Robin McClave, of Healthy Howard, met with Malik once a week to help her through the process.

"I was so impressed with Rhea since day one," said McClave. "She was so organized, so methodical in how she approached this. She helps to set the example that one person can make a change that impacts so many."

Despite her work, Malik may never actually get to use one of the trays. This year she graduated from Long Reach High School and in the fall will attend Harvard University. She plans to study molecular biology, but hopes to continue participating in environmental advocacy in Cambridge.

However, before she left, Malik handed her project off to a fellow Long Reach High student, Caroline Yang. Yang will run the composting program Malik set up at Long Reach High to help recycle the trays used at that school, said Malik.

Long Reach and Folly Quarter Middle School are the only schools currently with a composting program in place, according to Amani-Dove. She said the school system would need a commercial-sized composting operation to handle the nearly 2.5 million trays used annually in the school system.

Related Article

School System Examining Ways to Take Foam Trays Out of Cafeterias
Tahira Mussarat Hussain July 10, 2013 at 10:00 AM
Rhea you are great. So proud of you.
Mom H July 10, 2013 at 11:16 AM
What am I missing? Why do disposable trays have to be used at all? Why not plastic cafeteria trays that get washed??
Cindy Golightly July 17, 2013 at 07:00 AM
There is a web-based catalog of ALL sorts of foodservice items that are CERTIFIED to be biodegradable. You can find it at http://www.bpiworld.org - The Biodegradable Products Institute, a not-for-profit agency.

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